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Inquirer, Harrisburg paper seek viewing of executions

HARRISBURG - The Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News asked a federal court Wednesday to literally pull back the curtain on the state's execution chamber and allow witnesses to see the whole procedure.

HARRISBURG - The Inquirer and the Harrisburg Patriot-News asked a federal court Wednesday to literally pull back the curtain on the state's execution chamber and allow witnesses to see the whole procedure.

The suit says the state Department of Corrections is violating the state constitution by a policy preventing witnesses to the commonwealth's first execution in 13 years from observing the entire process.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District one week before convicted murdered Terrance Williams is scheduled to be executed at Rockview state prison in Centre County for the 1984 bludgeoning death of Amos Norwood in Philadelphia.

A Philadelphia judge said Tuesday that she would decide Friday whether Wednesday's execution will proceed. Another appeal is being heard by the state pardons board Thursday.

The state's execution protocol gives witnesses, who include reporters, only a brief glimpse of the process during which the lethal injection is administered.

"The execution protocols deprive the public of the information necessary to engage in an informed debate about the most severe penalty the government can impose on its citizens," the suit says.

If Williams is put to death, witnesses, including the victim's family and citizens, will not see the demeanor of the prisoner or anyone else in the room, including the execution team. Nor does the protocol allow them to see if force is used when the prisoner is strapped down in the gurney or if the prisoner displays any signs of pain throughout, the suit says.

Nor does the protocol provide the condemned the opportunity to make a final statement while visible to the witnesses, the suit says.

Under Pennsylvania procedures, the prisoner, if he chooses, either writes or dictates a statement beforehand, and it is provided to reporters afterward, said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

McNaughton said the department does not comment on litigation.

Citing rulings in federal court in California that upheld the First Amendment rights of witnesses, the suit seeks an injunction to compel the state to make the whole process visible, from the point the condemned man enters the chamber until he is declared dead.

"If you are going to use this punishment, you should not do it in an Orwellian manner where nobody can see it," said Paul Titus, an attorney with Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, the firm representing the plaintiffs.

In the past, witnesses sat in the execution chamber as individuals were put to death. They saw the arrival of the condemned, the preparations made for the execution, and the final act itself.

In a 1995 account, Philadelphia Daily News reporter Joseph R. Daughen wrote of witnessing the 1962 death of Elmo Smith, the last person executed by the electric chair in Pennsylvania.

Daughen recalled the terror in the condemned man's eyes, the hum of the execution instruments, and the chaplain chanting "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

"Smith shot forward as if he had been catapulted," Daughen wrote of the moment of execution, "and my knees instinctively clapped together in anticipation of his landing in my lap. But the straps held him in the chair."

Individuals who witnessed serial killer Gary M. Heidnik's execution in 1999 by lethal injection saw much less of the process.

At that time, witnesses were seated in a separate room, behind a curtain, and saw Heidnik for only a few minutes as he was strapped to the gurney and drugs were administered before the curtain closed again.

Inquirer editor William K. Marimow said he thought it was important to bring the suit because of the level of sensitivity surrounding the death penalty in American society.

"Seeing it through trained journalists' eyes helps people make informed decisions," Marimow said. "Does the death penalty constitute cruel or unusual punishment, or is it fitting punishment in the state of Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country?"

The lawsuit cites decisions on the matter of execution visibility before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 2002 held that California violated the First Amendment rights of the public to witness executions "from the moment the condemned enters the execution chamber through, to and including, the time the condemned is declared dead."

That court reached the same conclusion in an Idaho case this summer.